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Goodbye, Columbus

12 October 2021
He’s just a man, and I’ve know so many other men before…

When the stature of Christopher Columbus, which has stood in the Reforma roundabout in Colonia Juarez since 1892 was “temporarily” removed last October — ostensively for cleaning and restoration (and, admittedly, because defacing landmarks has become something of the fashion of street protests lately) — did anyone really think he would be returning?

With another 12 October… Diá de la Raza … upon us (close on the heels of the 500th anniversary of the downfall of the Aztec “Empire”) it was announced in early September that the Columbus statue would relocate, moving — like so many other Europeans in Mexico City over the years — to a swankier neighborhood: specifically Parque de los Americas in upscale Polanco, while the busy Reforma roundabout would PROBABLY be graced with Tlalli, an idealized and abstract indigenous woman. Or a woman of some sort.

On the occasion of not returning the monument to its original pedestal, Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller (Mexican journalist, literature professor… and, incidentally, the president’s wife) was called on to make a few remarks.

To ‘discover America’ is to claim that such a land was lost, covered, hidden. By the logic of colonization, finding it brought it to life. No! America was not under water’. overgrown, or buried. The American continent existed, had a life of its own, and included many flourishing civilizations… architecture, astronomy, agriculture, culture, and the arts. In fact, Christopher Columbus did not ‘discover’ it. Not only are there documented traces of previous European and Asian explorers, but, unfortunately for him, he died without ever knowing that in his colossal transatlantic journey he had come across a new continent. You cannot ‘discover’ something that you do not know existed and then say you ‘found’ it.

Said obliquely, Colombus — a 15th century Italian, or Portugese, or… whatever… navigator, with the typical disregard for humanity and bloody-mindedness typical of Europeans of his time — is of lesser importance than the events set in motion that transformed the planet. Not always for the best.

Dame Rebecca West, who was somethng of a right-wing crank at the end of her life, fretted in “Survivors in Mexico” that if the Spanish had not “discovered” the Americas, the Muslims would have, and it would have been a tragedy for “western civilization” (I paraphrase). Although, among earlier “old world” visitors (and presumed visitors) to the “new world” prior to Columbus, there was Muhammad ibn Qu, a 13th century Malian ruler, said to have set off into the Atlantic, and … in oral tradition … to have reached what is now Brazil. And, had the Vikings, or the Irish, or the Chinese, or some other likely earlier visit to this side of the world had the same impact as Colombus, “western culture” would likely have been very different too.

As it was, it was probably inevitable that someone from the Iberian kingdoms, specifically someone serving the joint crown of Castille and Aragon would have sailed to this side of the world. The technology of the European late middle ages was largely imported through the Arab world, of which Iberia … until the fateful year of 1492, was still a part. The mercantile kingdom of Aragon had been losing its access to the middle east, and though the middle east to China and India, for over a century (having once competed sucessfully with Genoa and Venice, even holding Athens for a time). Between the Ottoman expansion into North Africa, and it’s understandable ideological war with the Christian “reconquista” of their territories in Iberia, and the Portuguese having worked out a way to by-pass the old “Silk Road” route to acquire goods from China and India, Aragon would be in decline without finding their own short-cut to what was the major “industrial heartland” of the era.

While still a wealthy nation, Aragon didn’t have the muscle to expand its business. That is until there was a stratigic merger… i.e…. a royal marriage. Ferdinand II of Aragon brought in cash and business saavy to Isabella of Castille’s manpower and military strength. The Ottomans already had access to the “far east”, Genoa and Venice weren’t hung up on religious ideology when it came to business, England was a weak minor northern power (and recovering from a century of civil wars), Scotland and the Scandinavia were a mess… and France seemed satisfied to get its Renassance fix via the Italian peninsula. Leaving… “Spain” (i.e. Castille and Aragon) and Portugal as the contenders for the Atlantic-Asian trade.

So… with Portugal having established a workable, if somewhat circuitous route to east Asia, “Spain’s” search for a faster route makes perfect sense. Despite Washington Irving’s 1828 “A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus”, and generations of American school mar’ms, it wasn’t that Columbus knew better than everyone else, and the world was round, or… as we have it the the contemporary spirit of “debunking” the figures held up by the “great men” school of history… Columbus was just a fool who couldn’t do math and under-calculated the circumference of the earth by a few thousand kilometers. Or, had plain dumb luck.

More logical is that maps and globes of the time had the circumference about right but either over-estimated the land mass of Asia, or — as a few did — showed North American land-masses somewhere about where they should be, but without any real detail of whether they were part of Asia, or just close to Asia. The “Erdesfel”, a globe made by the Bohemian Martin Beheim (and employee of those exploratory Portuguese) shows “Cipango”… Japan… about where Mexico City sits. And Ferdinand and Isabella … while they may have been busy with the rash decision to put in motion their final solution for the Jews (something building for a very long time) sending out some obscure skipper Columbus in search of a shorter route to Asia was a high risk investment (and required going to private creditors) and one can safely assume they did their due dilligence. Say what you will about the pair, they weren’t stupid, or naive.

Columbus died still thinking he was “this close” to Asia. And he’d made an absolutely terrible administrator of his colony. A monster if you like… in the way 15th century petty tyrants tended to be. We have no clue as to how Eric the Red, or Muhammad Ibi Qu, or Saint Brendan, or any of the other earlier (sometimes merely conjectural) old worlders treated their new world neighbors. Nor does it matter, any more than it does how Columbus himself acted (one hopes they were better).

For Columbus, the man, isn’t ultimately what matters, or what should be remembered. The so-called “Columbian Exchange”… the agricultural, demographic (did Columbus himself bring the diseases that wiped out a quarter of the human race over the next century or two… or would that have happened anyway?), ethnic, historical, and ecological chain of events that created, like it or not, what the world became. It’s not that the world and its peoples wouldn’t have changed over the last 500 + years without Columbus, nor that things would be better or worse, but that it’s foolish to speculate.

As foolish as building a statue to one person and claiming that that one person made us who we are.

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